Nate Lee (staffworker of InterVarsity’s Cal Christian Fellowship at UC Berkeley) shared this talk ‘The Moral Model Minority‘ at the Urbana 12 Pan Asian North American (PANA) Lounge on 12/31/2012. Adapted from an article published October 2012 in hardboiled, the Asian Pacific American issues newsmagazine at UC Berkeley. (Posted with permission.)
My father calls himself “jooksing.” Meaning, empty bamboo; all form, no substance. Says that when he was a kid, when he would hang out at my grandpa’s convenience store, all of my grandpa’s friends would call my dad that—jooksing. He can never be truly Chinese because of his American values, his abandonment of dental school dreams, because of his fractured Cantonese; He can never be truly American because of how he looks—he is stuck in the perpetual in-between. The scary thing about floating in the in between is that you become susceptible to lies from either side.
Many of us have given into the lies. This talk is titled, “the moral model minority.” I hope to show how the model minority myth and our compliance with it, has solidified these lies in our minds, and how the MORAL model minority myth, the lies in our theology, has solidified them in our hearts and souls. I believe Asian American Christians, if we are not aware of it, are even more vulnerable to the lies than our non-believing Asian brothers and sisters.
Raise your hand if you play piano or violin. Why do so many Asians play violin and piano? Why not the gu-zhen or the er-hu? We have mastered the epitome of the West’s art form. We have become more talented and more skilled at the finest of Western arts. We made it! But who will play the guzhen?
A motif of the Old Testament narrative is for the Israelites to remember. Remember who you are and who God made you to be. The unfortunate truth is that the higher we want to move up in society, the more we must think, act, and talk like dominant culture. There is a negative correlation between success and the maintenance of our ethnic identity. The arc of society is for us to forget.
For better or worse, we have moved up, and many of us have forgotten. Majority culture has told us that we have succeeded without any handouts, and we have responded with a resounding “Amen!” without realizing that our alliance with the dominant culture has forfeited our identity and implicitly cast an indictment on other minority groups. Many Asian American Christians, finding that their Confucian values of hard work, personal achievement, and frugality aligned with the Protestant work ethic, have in fact replaced the Gospel with the American Dream.
Not only do we interact with a society that tells us to forget, but our theology furthers our ethnic amnesia. Church historian Tim Tseng calls it the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America” where “our earthly identities ultimately do not matter because our Christian identity is our most important one.” The church often says, “Forget!” You’re not an Asian American Christian, you’re just a Christian who happens to be Asian American. Perhaps in our pursuit to, as Paul says, “be one in Christ,” we have actually silenced our own unique stories and become cookie cutter Christians who offer nothing unique to the feast of God.
We did not choose our parents, our culture, our ethnicity. These are gifts from God. Perhaps our faith opens us up to live most fully into the distinct people he created us to be. But this is scary. It’s easy to have a list of what a Christian looks like, how a Christian is to worship, what kind of songs, what kind of dress, what kind of behavior. But to say that faith opens us to live most fully into who God uniquely created us to be, well that means that we’re free. And those whom Christ sets free are free indeed.
We have a story. Many of us have forgotten about the pain and suffering. We have forgotten that many of the ethnic churches we grew up in were built because many white churches did not worship a God big enough to integrate their worship spaces. Our churches therefore became ethnic community centers where we could receive language training, develop job networks, and obtain positions of leadership. However, instead of continuing to identify as marginalized and expressing our faith in a way that promoted justice (like many Black and Latino churches have), we clung to our upward mobility, adopted a white, Western theology, moved to the suburbs, called it God’s blessing, and began to view the world from a distance, through a privileged lens.
We must remember that the Bible was written for marginalized communities in diaspora, not for privileged folks whose greatest fear in life is failing their classes. We cannot forget that Jesus was a poor refugee, that he represented a Jewish people who were oppressed by Roman imperialists, and that he led a revolution called The Way that stood in stark opposition to the status quo. But we don’t want to believe this, because to believe in this Jesus threatens our hard-earned success. So we nail him to a cross and we crucify our own identities and narratives along with him.
The Asian American Christian community must reclaim its identity. We must realize that God has given us a unique narrative, a unique history, a unique face, and that his desire is for us to live more fully into the people he has created us to be. This has everything to do with the Gospel. God is making all things right, making all things full and new and how he created them to be. Let us not be like the one who looks in the mirror and immediately forgets who they are.
The model minority myth is a lie. It is another way of saying that we’re dominant culture’s favorite slaves—the slaves that everyone else should emulate. Because we’re the master’s favorite, we get to eat at their table, take their jobs, and yes, even play their instruments. But guess what, we’re still slaves. But it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Perhaps we have been institutionalized in the prison of our own success. And when Christ comes to set us free, we cling to our own chains. Jesus says, “Those who lose their lives will find it.” We are so afraid to lose what we have gained, afraid to follow Jesus into the frightening, open, exhilarating space he calls the way. I long for the day we can throw off our chains, when we can love our eyes and our story and God’s face behind our own. I long for the day when my father will no longer call himself jooksing, but will be filled with the knowledge of the light of Christ, the light by which all other aspects of our self are illuminated and fulfilled. Amen.